Last week the news was full of reports of demonstrations in London, over the G20 summit conference out in the Docklands. And I, for one, was a bit puzzled. The protesters seemed to be something of a strange coalition.
Generally the demonstrators were summed up as “anti-capitalists”, as always happens at these events; probably because the Socialist Workers are always on hand to provide lots of placards in the hope of furthering the Trotskyite Revolution that they’re expecting, in true millennialist fashion, any day now. And there were plenty of such placards visible in the news reports. But that wasn’t the picture I gathered from the protesters who were actually interviewed on TV. They all seemed to be died-in-the-wool capitalists, people who truly believed in capitalism, people who were upset that their bankers had disappointed them.
These people were saying: “all our money has gone”. Because these were all people who had money, and had invested it. They had been living off their savings income,* and were protesting that the drop in interest rates has wiped that income out. Whether their capital is gone too, of course, depends where they’d invested it and how risky they were prepared to be. But risk is an inherent part of the system.
These people were well off, by any measure; at one time, at least. If they weren’t, then they wouldn’t have had money to invest to begin with. The vast majority of people, around the world, don’t have that complaint to make, because they’ve never been rich enough to save. You don’t have to worry about the return on your investment, or about the risk to your capital, if you’re in the great majority who don’t have any capital to invest. And if you’re an anti-capitalist, I’d have thought you’d be celebrating the failings of the capitalist system, trying to tell the world all about them. These people I’d class maybe as Voodoo Capitalists, people who assume that if they make an investment, they are guaranteed an income, because That’s Just How It Works. The value of their investments may go down as well as up, but that was buried in the small print, so they feel it’s their natural right that their money should keep on coming in. Not anti-capitalists, not Trotskyists, just overly-trusting people.
* A “private income”, to use the old-fashioned term
Nice to see the Grimsby area in the news for once, even if it isn’t very good news. I bet the Grimsby Telegraph‘s news staff have been so excited over the last week, to get some national-quality news to report on, they’ve probably been wetting themselves.*
I was rather wistful myself, what with formerly being local – so much so that in my teens I did work experience in the very refinery that’s been on the news. It’s bad luck, really, for the contractors who sparked the protests off: they would have to bring foreign workers in to one of the most reactionary and xenophobic parts of England. Grimsby’s the only place where I’ve heard someone (a retired nurse) say the immortal line: “I’m not a racist, but I do think all those coloureds should go back to their own country”. Without irony. And mean it.
I’m also well aware that the area’s an employment blackspot; on the other hand, though, I also know that it’s not as bad as you might think. There are great estates full of people who have been on benefits ever since they were old enough.** There aren’t many jobs other than in a few limited sectors. But, when I lived there, I had contacts at a local employment agency. Within a few sectors – mostly factory line work – there were once plenty of jobs. They go to immigrants; Poles and Lithuanians. That’s because Poles and Lithuanians were the ones who turned up to apply for these jobs, and were the most employable when they turned up. It’s easier, I guess, to sit in the pub and rant about how all these foreigners are taking the jobs of honest British workers, than it is to go out and get one yourself.
I said “there were once jobs” because I’ve not been around there for a while, and all I’ve heard since I left has been about factories closing. I don’t know what things are like there at the moment, but from what I’ve heard things aren’t going well. I’m not saying, either, that the work in question at the refinery shouldn’t have gone to a local company. The refinery and its suppliers, though, already in total make up a big chunk of the local workforce, and the small number of foreign contractors that have caused the protests make up a tiny proportion of the number of workers on the site, which after all it itself the size of a small town. They haven’t put that big crowd outside the refinery gates out of work, either. Grimsby has bigger problems than foreign workers, much bigger problems. The issue shouldn’t be whether the Prime Minster should live up to some sound-bite his speech writers came up with a while back; it should be one of getting more investment into the area. More foreigners, in fact – both Lindsey refinery and the neighbouring Humber refinery are foreign-owned plants. It’s also a problem of education; and a problem of ending the area’s isolationism. You can’t exactly pick Grimsby up and move it closer to civilisation, but maybe things would be better if that could be done with some of the locals’ minds.
* Although their managers won’t like it – it might be a bit of a budget-stretcher for the Grimsby Telegraph, sending reporters all the way from Grimsby to Immingham. God knows what might happen – one of them might even try to put a burger-van lunch on expenses! There aren’t many other refreshment options in the area, unless you can get into the refinery canteen.
** I would have said “ever since they left school”, but a lot of them didn’t go to school.
Well, no, that’s not quite true. I was never a Farepak customer. My mother, on the other hand, was at one time, so I’ve been keeping an interested eye on the slow-burning news that has followed Farepak’s collapse.
It’s more than ten years now since my mother stopped buying a hamper from the Farepak catalogue, and she did it at my persuasion. Farepak’s method of business: hard-pushed home-makers send them a small sum every week, through the year. Just before Christmas they receive several boxes of food; what seems like an impressively large amount. Its value, though, was usually rather less than the total you’d contributed through the year. I pointed out that if she opened another savings account, and paid into it a similar amount every week, then by Christmas she’d have rather more money than she’d put in, instead of rather less.* At the expense of going out and buying it herself, she could end up with a rather larger hamper.
That system relies on self-discipline, of course; my mother has rather more of it than I do, and rather more than most people. If you can afford to save at Farepak’s negative interest rate, though, you can afford to save with a bank. Much of the media commentary on Farepak’s bankruptcy seems to suggest that the company should have behaved more charitably to its customers because of their relative poverty; or that its bankers should have been more accommodating as the company was doing Good Deeds. This forgets, though, that the point of a company is usually to make money, and Farepak was no exception to that. It’s possibly unfair to say they were exploiting the poor – after all, a prepayment scheme like Farepak’s is far better for the customers than buying on credit. They were, though, making money out of the poor, by showing them how to afford something rather nicer than they thought. Moreover, they do seem to have been making money – all the news stories suggest that the collapse was due to losses elsewhere in the parent company.
Farepak, and its competitors, gave and give their customers one great benefit: they forced self-discipline onto them. If credit unions offered similar accounts – pay in an agreed amount all year, then get your balance paid out at Christmas – then it would be a great help. Never forget, though, that both Farepak and its bankers were out to make money. That’s how our system works.
* Admittedly only pence more – but still.
Well, I was glad Gordon Brown did take my hints on a couple of things.* I’m just disappointed that he didn’t single out blue cars for rebates.
Current small reasons to feel pleased with myself: I’ve managed to completely avoid watching anything at all to do with the Commonwealth Games, even though one of the medal-winners is a teacher at my old school. Hopefully I’ll manage to keep avoiding it until all the fuss is over again.
Current small reasons to get pissed off: the computer keeps crashing, usually at the most inappropriate moments. I know what the problem is: a very obscure bug in the disk controller driver which very few people have come across, and nobody seems to know the cause of.** Bah.
On the other hand, I do have a large box of biscuits on my desk at the moment. But not for long, I suspect. Hurrah!
* although, to be fair, everyone else in the country had already vaguely guessed the road tax changes.
*** it only comes up if you have a Promise SATA disk controller, a Maxtor SATA disk, and are running one of some Linux 2.6 subversions. But not all – the problem apparently disappeared in one revision of the driver, only to come back in the next.
As that nice Mr Brown of Ferryhills Road is going to deliver his budget this afternoon, I thought it would be a good idea to give him a few tips. So, in nice easily-digested bullet-point form, here’s the Symbolic Forest Budget 2006 – quick, clear the BBC1 schedule and get Evan Davies on standby!*
- Higher taxes for married people.
- and anyone else who can get a date at the drop of a hat (sorry, Big Dave)
- Lower taxes for single people
- especially ones who are doomed to stay single for all eternity (it’s only fair).
- Higher taxes for big cars. You only need a 4×4 to take the kids to school if you live in, say, the tiny Welsh hill village of Llwybr Cyhoeddus.
- Smaller taxes for little cars. Especially blue ones.
- Lower taxes on beer produced by small independent breweries.
- Higher taxes for carbonated urine beer produced by big industrial ones
- No tax at all on gin
- Or tonic.
- No taxes on any expensive cameras or other gadgets I might want to buy in the next year.
- More cake
That should get the economy nice and stimulated. There you go, Gordon; hope this helps.
* But don’t mention the rumour about his body piercings.